Urhobo Historical Society

Peter Ekeh: The Dignity of Intellectual Labour

Sunny Awhefeada
Delta State University, Abraka

(Culled from The [Nigerian] Guardian, March 08, 2007)

IGERIA is a nation of manifold tragedies. One retiring University professor once depicted this in the following beautiful yet threnodic lines during his valedictory lecture:

All things bright and beautiful
All things wise and wonderful
Nigeria kills them all.

Part of Nigeria's tragedy inheres not only in killing its best and brightest, but also in chasing those it could not kill (apamaku) out of the country. Thus, there are very many Nigerians of redoubtable genius and ability who have escaped from the nation's hell into the ambivalence of the Diaspora for good or ill. There is virtually no country in the world where there are no Nigerians doing exceedingly well in different spheres of human endeavours. When, in Shakespeare's Richard II, Bolingbroke was banished from England, his father, the Old John of Gaunt told him thus:

All places that the eye of heaven visits
Are to a wise man ports and happy havens
Teach thy necessity to reason thus
There is no virtue like necessity.

Many Nigerians who have been forced to flee the nation for other places must have consciously or unconsciously imbibed John of Gaunt's apothegm. All over the universe, Nigerians are making a virtue of the necessity that uprooted them from their fatherland, and enduring and enjoying the ambivalence of exile manifested in its pains and pleasures.

The worst hit domain is the academia where the highly valorised concept of brain drain has taken its terrible toll. Beginning from the late 1980s when Nigeria was asphyxiating under General Babangida's vice grip many academics left the country in search of greener pastures abroad. Babangida it was who inaugurated the eclipse that finally benighted the University system. Under his praetorian regime, whatever lofty ideals on which the University rested were undermined, and his notion of shape in or ship out was reified. Academics who had options and offers simply shipped out to other climes where their cerebral services are valued and appropriately priced.

There was no Nigerian University of repute that did not suffer from brain drain. Even Nigeria's millennial crawl to a receding progress can also be interpreted as a consequence of brain drain because no country can develop in spite of the intellectual endowment of its human resources. From Calabar to Maiduguri, Benin to Ibadan, Lagos to Jos, Ife to Kano, and more, all the universities lost some of their finest brains to the phenomenon of brain drain. Those academics who remained in Nigeria did so out of an exhausted nationalistic fervour, some other compelling reasons or lack of where to go. Brain drain is far from abating. Some of our scholars are still fleeing not just to America, Europe and South Africa, but also to Ghana, Gambia and lately Ethiopia of all places!

Professor Peter Palmer Ekeh who is the subject of this piece joined the brain drain roller coaster bound for the United States of America, the fabled God's own country in 1988. By then, an already internationally established scholar who was always preceded by his cerebral fame, Professor Ekeh had mentored generations of scholars of social science persuasion at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria's premier university. Born 70 years ago, Professor Ekeh graduated from the University of Ibadan with a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science in 1964. It is on record that he alone made a Second Class Upper Division in the sprawling Faculty of the Social Sciences that year. His erudition enabled him to obtain in record time the Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in 1967 and 1970 respectively. His academic career saw him leaving indelible foot prints at the University of California, Ahmadu Bello University and the University of Ibadan where he became a Professor and the third African to head the University's world famous Department of Political Science.

A holder of uncountable intellectual laurels, Professor Ekeh's books are in the realm of world magnum opus in socio-political discourse. A first generation African social scientist, Professor Ekeh belongs to a stellar constellation of pundits which include Professors B.J. Dudley, Claude Ake (both of blessed memory), Professors Omafume Onoge, Essien Udom, Onigu Otite, Eskor Toyo, Okwudiba Nnoli among others whose erudition remains a source of inspiration to budding academics. Professor Ekeh's place in Africa, nay world's intellectual hemisphere, is adumbrated by his numerous scholarly publications that put him in the first rank of scholars in the world. That he was for a long time the Chair of the Department of African-American Studies of the highly regarded State University of New York is an enduring testimony to his cerebral sublimity.

Professor Peter Palmer Ekeh has laboured untiringly to privilege Africa, Nigeria and his native Urhobo in the annals of mankind. As a foremost theorist of African political behaviour, Professor Ekeh's efforts largely contributed to the liberation of African's historiography which years of imperial historicising confined it to the region of silence and absence. Humble, self-effacing, genial and avuncular, Professor Ekeh's personality typifies the simplicity of true greatness.

Having done so much to put Africa in the universal scheme of the Social Sciences and History, Professor Ekeh turned his profoundly indubitable scholarship to propagating the socio-economic and political history of his Urhobo people. Just before the turn of the last century he founded Urhobo Historical Society (UHS) based in America. He has since been able to arouse interest in all aspects of Urhobo and Deltaic studies. Every year since 2000, the UHS has been organising social cum scholarly conferences where intellectuals and non-intellectuals meet to brainstorm and evolve regenerative ideas.

My first encounter with Professor Ekeh was on the pages of The Guardian in early 2001 when he wrote a three-part rejoinder to an article by the late radical scholar, Dr. Yussuf Bala Usman who had argued that the crude oil in the Niger Delta was the product of debris washed down from Northern Nigeria thousands of years ago. Professor Ekeh replied with copious geographical, historical and scientific references which gave the lie to Dr. Usman's claims. In November of the same year, I met Professor Ekeh in person when he delivered a guest lecture at a forum organised by the now extinct Urhobo National Assembly at the Petroleum Training Institute (PTI) conference centre in Effurun near Warri. In that lecture, Professor Ekeh demonstrated a rare scholarly brilliance which held the audience spell bound for over an hour. The standing ovation that greeted him at the end of the lecture was phenomenal.

Professor Ekeh's intellectual stature is inestimable, and it is heart-warming that the Delta State University, Abraka, on Saturday February 17, 2007, graciously conferred on him an honorary Doctorate degree in recognition of that fact. This is an accolade Professor Ekeh so well deserved, and it negates that notion that a prophet has no honour at home. What the University has done will serve as a morale booster to other untiring scholars not to relent in their quest for academic excellence and other pursuits that benefit mankind. No traditional ruler has honoured Professor Ekeh with a chieftaincy neither has any government -- local, state nor federal -- has given him any award, because he is not a thief in government who has money to throw around.

But his constituency, the University, the citadel of all human endeavours, has recognised him therefore making a clarion statement about the dignity of intellectual labour. This is a gesture other Nigerian universities should emulate. Nigeria's Minister of Education, the ever bubbly Oby Ezekwesili, recently decried the commodification and devaluation of honorary Doctorates as Nigerian Universities confer them on people of questionable integrity. Abraka, by recognising Professor Ekeh's worth and thus conferring dignity on intellectual labour, has toed the right path and shown the way other Universities should go.

As the bogey called Obasanjo's administration grudgingly moves towards breasting the final tape, Nigerians should wish for and vote for a new crop of leaders who will positively reinvent the nation and put it on the path of genuine and humane progress. When this is done perhaps those Nigerians abroad will return home and bring with them the knowledge and expertise they have used in projecting their host countries. It is a tragedy that Nigeria is in the throes of annihilation, battered and helpless, while her sons and daughters redeem other lands. It is indeed a tragedy.

Awhefeada teaches Literature at the Delta State University, Abraka.